- Original publication date: 18 June 2013
From the 19th to 21st of April 2013, I attended the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, USA. This is Part 4 in a series of 5 articles, focusing on the final day of the festival. All photos are my own.
Being at Coachella is very indicative of the Californian experience. There is staggering natural beauty & weather, the place is populated with the chic, the creative, the consumerist, and the health-conscious, and its environment is both trend-setting and expensive. If you aren’t careful, you’ll get sucked into the tantalizing Hollywood lifestyle.
Wandering through the Farmers Market on Sunday morning was a cautionary financial tale. Nestled in the expansive campgrounds, the market serves up a smorgasbord of appetising food and beverages, its tents and stalls daring you to try their delectable delights. With breakfast and coffee being the main points on the agenda, an all-you-can-eat buffet of morning treats from Roc’s Fire House Grille and an iced cappuccino with horchata (cinnamon and vanilla-infused milk) dealt with the hunger pangs. Window-shopping on a full stomach made the rest of the ramble through the market easier to manage, passing by delis, dessert stands, smoothie shacks, bakeries, and organic fruit stalls with the virtue of a nun.
Early afternoon saw The Gaslight Anthem deliver a stirring set of their New Jersey blue-collar balladry to the main Coachella Stage, with Brian Fallon’s growl guiding the gathered masses through a medley of Bruce Springsteen-meets-punk proclamations. Like The Boss himself, Fallon & Friends trade on earnestness and heartfelt, nostalgia-tinged poetry, no more evident than on set-opener ‘Mae’ (“stay the same, don’t ever change, 'cause I’d miss your ways, with your Bette Davis eyes, and your mama's party dress”). Their raw punk roots have been relatively refined over time (this set featured no tracks from their boisterous 2007 debut Sink Or Swim), but a melodic modification to their tightly-constructed sound should not be seen as a sacrifice for intensity, or a lapse into mediocrity.
Catchy hit-single ‘45’ and the title track of 2012’s Handwritten kept the fire of the band’s youth burning, as did rousing set-closer ‘The Backseat’. ‘The Queen Of The Lower Chelsea’, however, was slow-building and tranquil, but left one humming along to an infectious guitar line, and the peppy ‘Old White Lincoln’ ensured the same. Rounding out their varied set were two covers: the obscure ‘Once Upon A Time’ by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, and Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Interstate Love Song’ (described by Fallon as “a song we really love from the 90’s”). Although the band holds their influences very close to their heart, they still produce fresh and exhilarating music.
Lots of guitar feedback at a crushing volume began to emanate from the Outdoor Theatre later in the afternoon, and the source of this howling cacophony was Dinosaur Jr., the avant-garde alternative rock ancestors. Their trademark sound is a bizarre hybrid of styles, meshing strains of classic rock, hardcore punk and noise rock into an intriguing, distorted behemoth, which foreshadowed the direction alternative and grunge music would take in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Guitarist and lead singer J Mascis’ droning vocals swayed in and out of the maelstrom, overshadowed by his dazzling guitar parts, which set-opener ‘The Lung’ particularly highlighted. Bassist Lou Barlow took over vocal duties on ‘Rude’, a punky take on 50’s rock ‘n roll, and again on ‘Training Ground’, a searing rendition of a song originally written by him and Mascis whilst in their first band together, the now-defunct Deep Wound.
Not all their output was designed to rattle the eardrums; the comparatively melodic ‘Feel The Pain’ had the crowd mildly bopping along to its mid-tempo verses, before the epic chorus kicked in with gusto. Towards the end of their set, Mascis sarcastically heralded the arrival of The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’ (a song which yielded them their first UK hit in 1989) with “this is not a Cure song”, which was partially true, as the band brought their token weirdness and amped-up audacity to the beloved new-wave gem.
The highly-acclaimed aural alchemy of Tame Impala turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival, and the Australian psychedelic rock project (led by mastermind Kevin Parker) showed why they deserve such praise with a sprawling, transcendental set at the Outdoor Theatre.
Songs warped and expanded to dizzying depths, such as the reggae-influenced interlude between the swaying swagger of ‘Elephant’ and the dreamy ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, with a swampy, dubstep rhythm Parker dedicated “to those heading towards a hangover”. Elsewhere, the tumbling grooves of latest single ‘Mind Mischief’ were stretched to Saturn and back with an extended remix, and fan-favourite ‘Half Glass Full Of Wine’ already had the delirious masses crowd-surfing before its slick, danceable extended finale.
One could see that the band was enjoying the sun-drenched atmosphere (populated with a sizeable Australian contingent), as their previous weekend’s set had been plagued by a sudden dust-storm. This time, the audience was only mentally blown away by Parker’s sonically massive performance, where swirling layers of sound camouflaged his introspective and isolationist lyrics (clearly evident on set-opener ‘Solitude Is Bliss’ – the lone track from their 2010 debut Innerspeaker). For a shy guy, he sure knows how to connect with a crowd, as well as conduct a well-oiled machine onstage, with his free-floating John Lennon-esque vocals resonating into the stratosphere and beyond.
Coming down from the high of one great act and moving onto another is tantamount to any Coachella tale. Starry-eyed festivalgoers swim from stage to stage, with diehard fans pushing for a spot closest to the front amongst the teeming thousands. Even settling for a cosy corner many rows back from the main Coachella Stage did not diminish the viewing experience of Vampire Weekend. A less claustrophobic perspective allowed one to take in the elaborate and striking stage design, which included large framed mirrors and floating white Roman columns. The chic, preppy indie pop-rock of their first two albums complemented the mood, and the unveiling of tracks from their upcoming Modern Vampires Of The City showed a breath-taking shift towards a more varied, epic sound.
First of these was the zany rockabilly stomper ‘Diane Young’, with lead singer Ezra Koenig making clever use of pitch-shifting on his vocals, turning them impossibly deep then high in the space of just a few words. Another new track, the slow-building ‘Ya Hey’, showcased a more stately electronic side to their sound, and the experience became more engrossing with each song, as the band slipped between the quirky, perky wit of ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Oxford Comma’, and the percussive power of ‘Giving Up The Gun’. When the Afro-pop influenced ‘Cape Cod Kwassa’ sailed in to close off their memorable set, the crowd had been exposed to a wide spectrum of smartly-crafted pop songs.
The mood dramatically deviated into very dark territory as the gothic gang leader Nick Cave seized control of the main Coachella Stage, and held court with his band The Bad Seeds. A two-time performer over the weekend (his garage rock side project Grinderman also made an appearance on Friday night), Cave’s frightening stage persona was one part rambling preacher, one part demented poet, and his deep baritone vocals violently led the Seeds and stunned crowd through six of the band’s best-known hits from their 30-year career, as well as two new songs.
Taken from 2013’s Push The Sky Away, the recent tracks (“Jubilee Street’ and the title song) showcased a mournful, operatic side to the Bad Seeds sound, and the latter formed part of a glorious finale, which featured backing vocals from a children’s choir from Silverlake Music Conservatory. But what Cave does best is weave together twisted tales and equally perverse music, best seen and heard on the profane ‘Stagger Lee’. Whilst second-in-command Warren Ellis, the heavily-bearded violinist, haphazardly scooted around the stage with villainous glee, Cave took to the crowd, getting up close and personal for the tense confessional ‘The Mercy Seat’ and spooky ‘Red Right Hand’. It was a consummate performance from the legendary Australian rocker, bathed in the melodramatics and shock value that he has become well-known for.
Coachella’s final day had seen talent that had traversed all the way from the East Coast of the USA, and across the seas from Down Under, but veteran local funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers brought some Californian love to the proceedings, headlining the festival for an incredible third time. Although long past their prime, the band knows how to constantly adapt and evolve, weathering through a turbulent history of substance abuse and a revolving door of guitarists. The 2009 departure of the iconic John Frusciante, and subsequent addition of Josh Klinghoffer, signalled new phase in their fascinating career.
Whilst 2011’s I’m With You attempted to rebuild the band’s studio sound from the ashes, incorporating Afrobeat and piano-based influences, the Chili Peppers’ live show has now morphed into a tour de force funk fiesta that few groups can match with experience or skill. Delving into a treasure trove brimming with 30 years’ worth of hits, there’s always a guaranteed retreading over past classics, but the band has plied their trade long enough to be able to shake things up and provide fresh, exciting interpretations of their material. Frequent jams and improvisations blurred the lines between songs, with the band content to feel their way through the moment (such as the exhilarating extended intro to ‘Can’t Stop’).
As expected, the set was heavily weighted towards the successes of the early 90’s and early 00’s, with only set-opener ‘Monarchy Of Roses’, ‘Factory Of Faith’, and ‘The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie’ featuring off of their latest album. Klinghoffer has ably slotted into the fold, after being a touring guitarist with the band since their 2006 Stadium Arcadium Tour, bringing an elusive, textural approach to the guitar attack (most notably seen on their live staple ‘Californication’, twisting the dirge-like music to further match the social commentary). The rhythm section still boasts two of the finest players of their crafts in Flea (bass) and Chad Smith (drums), with the latter receiving a boost in the percussion department in the form of Mauro Refosco, who spices proceedings up with an assortment of bongos and exotic instruments.
Red Hot Chili Peppers will always be young at heart, despite singer Anthony Kiedis’ relative onstage mellowing and lack of banter compared to Flea, who is still the soul of the group, bursting with passion, silliness and technical proficiency. After a five-song encore, which included a group of lucky fans dressed in UV-painted white jumpsuits joining the band for vigorous set-closer ‘Give It Away’, the bassist breathlessly blurted out “I love me some California!”, before going on to list a number of the state’s locales, drawing rapturous applause with every city.
When paying a visit to a town or city, it is considered good traveller’s practice to sample the local sights and sounds, as it hopefully provides an insight into local culture. For a truly international event, Coachella still feels confidently Californian: a holistic Hollywood haven of music, art, food, and entertainment; a desert retreat reveling in the cut-throat intensity and excess of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
But maybe this juxtaposition highlights the success of the phenomenon of vicariousness known as ‘Californication’. Anthony Kiedis said it best in the song that bears its name: “Everybody's been there, and I don't mean on vacation”.